South Asia and Beyond

Destination ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’: Which Way To Go?

NEW DELHI: The buzz caused by the prime minister’s call for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ over a month ago has got a tad confused, to put it mildly. To be sure, the PMO website is full of lengthy, wordy details about what it means, ranging from self-reliance to “quantum jump” for the economy, modern infrastructure, technology-driven systems, “vibrant demography” and strong demand for local goods.

But as anyone will tell you, these are the ultimate goals, the final destination. How does one get there? Is there a detailed roadmap? Industry veterans say they have not come across such a roadmap, so some turned the searchlight on those very words ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and what Modi actually meant. Local business and industry tapped friends in the bureaucracy for clarity but got more confusion. To some officials, it suggested indigenisation, to others it was about keeping foreign industry out. One official even helpfully recommended that industry come up with its own definition and “we will support you”.

A leading legal firm claimed it had the solution to the confusion but whether this was genuine or some money making ‘jugaad’ was not clear. Foreign missions in India and MNCs sought to find out details on their own. It included investing in the best of Hindi to English dictionaries. But the fog remains.

Let’s get back to the PMO description. To repeat, it lays out the ultimate goal of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ but since the roadmap is missing, industry veterans say government must lay out the roadmap in terms of any incentives government is providing? Are investment rules being changed? and so on.

This is not to decry the piecemeal reforms that have been announced (and those reforms also temporarily boosted the markets). But industry says a clear cut roadmap is not there. If the goal is self-reliance, it seems a throwback to an earlier failed era characterised by heavy-handed bureaucracy, excessive controls and pervasive corruption.

Former DRDO chief VK Saraswat’s suggestions may have only deepened those fears. He called for a “border adjustment tax” on all imported goods over and above customs duties. He claimed this would ensure a “level playing field” for the local industry. He also urged lessening India’s dependence on foreign suppliers for raw materials and semi-finished goods. Saraswat’s words carry weight since, apart from his DRDO background with its strong ‘desi’ underpinnings, he is also a member of the government think tank Niti Aayog.

The confusion over ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ underscores the government’s inability to articulate and communicate in a coherent, cogent and consistent manner. It also underscores another point: the poor quality of our political class (ruling and opposition) that’s fixated on politics to the point where the nuts and bolts of governance escape them. The result is a communication void and the growing impression of a government running on empty slogans.

It is causing unease even among the Japanese and the Koreans, who run among the most successful businesses and industries in this country. The confusion does not bode well for India, more so its economy. This is the time when the government should be implementing a well-thought-through strategy to capitalise on the widespread disillusionment with China because of the Coronavirus, and swing investment into this country. Will India again miss another window of opportunity?

Surya Gangadharan

Thirty eight years in journalism, widely travelled, history buff with a preference for Old Monk Rum. Current interest/focus spans China, Technology and Trade. Recent reads: Steven Colls Directorate S and Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. Netflix/Prime video junkie. Loves animal videos on Facebook. Reluctant tweeter.

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